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So every day after I got off the school bus, I’d grab the afternoon Bridgeport Post from the mailbox at the end of our driveway and pore over its pages while my friends were still back at school rehearsing a play, practicing in the marching band, or playing sports. I was not embarrassed or ashamed by this. Actually, I was quite proud of myself. None of my friends was reading the newspaper with the attention that I was giving to it. Maybe it made me feel grown up, a cut above the rest.

Some obsessions we outgrow but I did not outgrow this one. I could never keep in my head everything I felt I needed or wanted to know, and this is perhaps where my need to know soured into an obsession. I’d started clipping in my teens, filing the clippings in folders arranged by topic and stashing the folders in tall, gray file cabinets, and long after I had plunged myself into Buddhism, which teaches about the emotional pain of clinging to old habits, I continued to pile newspapers around me to protect a fragile sense of self that felt threatened without them. Wherever I moved, those file cabinets and stacks of newspapers came with me, growing like stalagmites in every room in every apartment and house I lived in. Over the years, I’ve found myself becoming embarrassed by them. Once, I was even reluctant to let a plumber into my house to fix a broken pipe for fear of what he would think of me.

Everyone I tell about my situation gives me the same admonition: Get rid of the newspapers. You can find everything online now. Move on. Make space in your life for something new. Some Buddhist you are, they taunt me. I laugh, and shrug it off. But deep inside, the confusion is acute. Over the years I’ve made some small attempts to clean up and put a stack of yellowing copies of the Wall Street Journal or New York Times out on the curb for recycling. But as I’m doing it, I am convinced— and dread mightily—that in the stack I’m turning my back on there’s something I need to know, and now will never know. Some bit of knowledge or fact that will transform my life.

At the same time, I know that what would really transform my life would be to get rid of the newspapers. I have canceled all my newspaper and magazine subscriptions, and recently had a friend over to help jump-start the arduous cleaning-out process. We ended the day with a whopping thirty-nine grocery bags (which I had been saving, of course) stuffed with newspapers deposited on the curb outside my house for recycling. I even found a New York Times clipping titled, “Clutter Counseling: Just Say Throw.” The date of the clipping: November 9, 1995.

I try to concentrate on the basic Buddhist teachings contained in the four noble truths I learned years ago: there is suffering in life, we suffer to the degree we crave and cling, there is an antidote to this clinging, and it is an eight-fold path that shows us how to live with moderation. To me, this moderation looks like a house where I don’t have to navigate my way through the heaps of newspapers, where friends can sit down at my kitchen table and enjoy a meal together. Not rocket science, yet for me difficult to put into practice.

I know by now that no amount of knowledge is going to change my life. “Wisdom is the only thing that saves people from suffering, finally,” the Buddhist scholar Robert Thurman said at a recent talk I attended. When I heard those words I thought back to my house a few miles away, silently groaning in the night like someone who’s eaten way too much. Buddhism teaches us that the greatest mind is a mind that lets go and the greatest wisdom comes from seeing through appearances.

I was reminded of a Zen story about two monks returning to their monastery one evening. It had rained, and a beautiful young woman was standing on the path, unable to go on because of a big puddle blocking her way. The elder of the two monks lifted her up in his arms, carried her across the puddle, and continued on his way.

That evening the younger monk came up to the elder monk and said, “Sir, as monks, we cannot touch a woman, right?”

The elder monk answered, “Yes, brother.”

Then the younger monk asked, “But then, sir, how is that you lifted that woman on the road?”
The elder monk smiled at him and said, “I left her on the side of the road, but you are still carrying her.”

James Kullander is a writer, a program curriculum consultant, and an online program content developer. His essay “My Marital Status” appears in the recently released anthology Right Here With You: Bringing Mindful Awareness Into Our Relationships.

From the November 2011 issue of the Shambhala Sun. Click here to browse the entire issue online.

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